England v Belgium
Sunday 11 October, 17:00
Live on Sky Sports Football and Main Event
England ready for toughest test
England face what should be their toughest test since the 2018 World Cup on Sunday when the world’s top-ranked side, Belgium, arrive at Wembley.
The contest will likely go a long way to deciding the teams’ Nations League group, one Belgium lead by two points from England after two of the six sets of games.
Gareth Southgate’s side can’t afford defeat but they will be buoyed by the fact they are on a run of six successive clean sheets.
The latest of those came on Thursday night against Wales, although that games bears little relevance to this one.
Southgate will change virtually his entire XI – Joe Gomez possibly the only one who will keep his place – with stars such as Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford and Harry Maguire returning.
England beat the Welsh 3-0 in the end and there were certainly some good signs from Southgate’s stand-ins but it should also be remembered that much of the first half was hard work as his players struggled to get the most out of the 3-4-3 formation which was also employed without great effect against Iceland and Denmark last month.
The central midfielders have looked too detached from the front line for much of this season’s three games so far, something exacerbated by the wing-backs not getting forward enough.
Yet Southgate is insistent on keeping this formation saying his squad offers a “depth of talent in all of the positions”, something he can’t say about 4-3-3.
Where Belgium can target England
Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson, who has played just 111 minutes since early July, could well be the central-midfield pairing here, up against Kevin de Bruyne and the under-rated Axel Witsel.
That looks an area of concern for England, as does the left side of their defence where Kieran Trippier again looks set to play out of position.
Belgium wing-back Thomas Meunier will likely pile forward down that side, while it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise for Romelu Lukaku to be pushed wider in a bid to exploit a potential weakness.
Roberto Martinez hasn’t been afraid to ask his star striker to do that in the past – the tactic worked wonders in the World Cup quarter-final against Brazil, while the Belgium boss also employed in on occasions when he had Lukaku at Everton.
The other end of the field brings more positive thoughts when it comes to England.
While they will be missing the injured Raheem Sterling, the pace of Rashford and Jadon Sancho, if he’s selected after his recent party faux pas, has the ability to frighten a visiting defence which looks sluggish in comparison.
Jan Vertonghen looks set to play despite recently fracturing his cheekbone, while former Spurs team-mate Toby Alderweireld is another hardly renowned for his speed.
Attacking strength equals goals
With the attacking side of the ball looking both sides’ strength, the game could feature a few goals, although it is worth noting that the visitors will be without both Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens.
Hazard, in particular, is a big miss for this team so perhaps England could offer a spot of value at [2.88] to win the game. Belgium are at [2.62] and the draw [3.55].
I can’t argue with both teams to score at [1.78] but that price immediately makes over 2.5 goals at odds-against ([2.02]) look a bit big.
England’s defence may have gone six games without conceding but it has been breached regularly against better sides – the Czechs scored twice against it in European Championship qualifying, the Netherlands won 3-1 (after extra time) in the inaugural Nations League Finals, while Spain and Croatia are others to have scored two against England since the start of the 2018 World Cup.
KDB to deliver again
Many will turn to Lukaku in the goalscorer markets. He has a terrific record in international football, scoring 26 goals in his last 22 competitive games.
However, many have been picked up against the minnows of the international scene. He failed to score in the knockout stages of the World Cup and since has drawn blanks against the Dutch and the Danes.
Instead I’m prepared to back De Bruyne to score at any time at [5.3].
He has five goals in his last 10 internationals and has started this season well.
In fact, the Manchester City star has been impressive ever since lockdown ended, scoring eight in 16 for his club in that period.
With Hazard absent, he’ll be even more important to this team and should get on the ball plenty, pushing forward, and there’s also a good chance he’ll take over Hazard’s role as penalty-taker.
Trippier brought to book?
It may also be worth backing Trippier to pick up a card in his unfamiliar role on the left.
He may not be a player who is booked very often but ref Tobias Stieler is a strict official, who has shown 24 cards in his five internationals and produces at a similar rate in his UEFA club appointments.
Meunier and possibly the pacy teenager Jeremy Doku look capable of causing plenty of problems for England down that side so the England man could offer some value at 8/1.
Belgium have scored in each of their last 19 away matches, scoring 54 goals (W15 D2 L2), while scoring at least twice in 16 of those 19 games, including each of their last 13 (38 goals scored).
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